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Barbie

Barbie againShe's one sixth the size of a human and packs both a powerful economic and sociological punch. Mention her name and everyone in the room has an opinion. She's been accused of adding to the growing epidemic of anorexia and warping both male and female expectations of body image. Yet, every young girl in America longs to own her, dress her and play with her hair. Her name is Barbie and she's 38 years old this year.

My first Barbie came into my life two weeks ago. I'm a bit older than the target market for this product, about 35 years older, to be exact. I could not remember playing with Barbie as a child, so I asked my parents if I had and they confirmed that I had not. So, I went to the toy store and bought myself a Tropical Barbie (with a tan, sun bleached hair and teeny, weeny floral bikini). I figured if I was going to take a stand, I had best possess an example of the plastic princess who has caused such an uproar.

It seems to me that the discussion of Barbie is polarized. People tend to be either Pro-Barbie or Anti-Barbie. I believe our discussion must be broader than that. The literature to date has failed to take into serious consideration a couple of key groups: these are those women who played with Barbie as a child, who are now mothers themselves, and the children playing with Barbie today.

When I look at women my age, I do not see a group of women warped by Barbie, but a group of women who believe in the power to create a life for themselves. And regarding children of today, we have clearly devalued the role of imagination and the ways in which Barbie broadens, not narrows, play opportunities.

A quick review of most of the literature concerning Barbie focuses on the ways in which Barbie is insufficient or problematic. The articles I read included a look at the self-serving way Mattel has marketed ethnic Barbies (Ducille), the fact that Barbie's body type is likely to occur only in one in one hundred thousand women (Norton), a discussion of the fiasco that occurred on a college campus when Barbie was included on a poster that celebrated "Women In Action" (Chamberlain) and a satirical lament by a writer who was still looking for Jewish Barbie (Lieberman).

By far, the most interesting and definitive treatise on Barbie is M.G. Lord's Forever Barbie , anBarbie again and again overview of the history of Mattel and the marketing of Barbie, as well as a look at how Barbie aficionados operate today. Here we learn that Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, who based her loosely on a sexy (even sleazy) German doll named Lilli originally marketed to men. We learn about the ways Mattel has changed its marketing over the last 38 years, noting some clear successes and some very entertaining failures. Remember "Growing Up Skipper," who developed quite a nice chest when you twisted her arm or "Earring Magic Ken," who wore a lavender vest, an earring in his left ear and a ring pendant? Lord also focuses on the ways in which Mattel has worked to become inclusive and diversified in it's marketing attempts. The German doll Lilli bears a striking similarity to Barbie.

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Deb Moore-Henecke is a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa. "Rethinking Barbie" is republished with the kind permission of Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture

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